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April 29, 2024

Burn Notice: Lighting Up Change with Disruption



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Over the past few weeks, I’ve delivered keynotes at Colorado, Illinois, British Columbia, Minnesota, and Georgia conferences. 

The travel is exhausting, and I swear to gawd, some days I scratch my head at my fellow humans while collecting observations of them in the airline stratosphere. It all becomes worth it when I reach my destination and step on stage. An exchange of energy occurs among the audience members. It’s hard to explain, but it’s wonderful to feel. The keynote that’s been the most popular is “Optimizing with Optimism” because no matter what profession or industry you are in, it’s easy to become disengaged and disenfranchised. I’ve always said that apathy is a disease we must fight because when we or the people we lead run out of f%cks to give, that’s a dangerous place. 

After delivering a keynote, I learn from the voices of the audience. When people come up to talk with me after my presentation, I listen to their insights and feedback about the topic. It’s a gift to receive different perspectives from people in the trenches doing the work. 

At my last few speaking gigs, folks wanted to discuss disruption. In my keynote, I make the case for optimizing performance through optimism by being our own disrupters. I’ve come to understand that the thing that holds us back from what we want most in this life is you—yes, you. We get in our own way of progress by being overcome by fear or lack of action. 

But this is about the external forces that hold us back: tormentors, stagnant cultures, and prehistoric traditionalists who cannot (will not) progress or bend. Some of us are stuck in organizations with antiquated systems that desperately need a new way forward. 

We can sit around buying our time until we can find another job or count down the days until retirement, or we can do something to effect change. The questions I have received in person and via email or DM’s are consistent. People want to know how to disrupt without disrupting too much! 

First off, what is a disruptor? 

A disruptor is “a person or thing that prevents something, especially a system, process, or event, from continuing as usual or as expected.” It breaks apart or interrupts. 

My daughter is a LT in the United States Air Force. She frequently calls me to proverbially talk her off the ledge when she encounters horrific leadership or barriers to progress because of government bureaucracy. She is consistently scratching her head at the apparent poor leadership in what is supposed to be the gold standard – our US military. I had to tell her that bad leaders exist in every profession. She cites things like taking credit for ideas, posturing, and doubling down on their position because they refuse to consider an alternate thought or idea because it wasn’t theirs or because that’s “now how we do things.” It doesn’t matter if the new idea has the potential to bring a better outcome. 

The system as we know it is culture. It’s the “we’ve always done it that way” culture, and it’s perpetuated by people who are in higher-ranking positions and believe they know more than anyone else or don’t see the need to change because they have a comfortable role in the system. It’s a culture of tradition. I’m all for tradition and believe we should honor it – but not when it impedes progress. 

My daughter was venting her frustrations to her mentor and shared that she was tired of getting advice to “bloom where she’s planted,” – which is a nice way of saying keep your mouth shut. Her mentor responded with this:

“F%ck blooming where you’re planted, burn that sh$t down and build it back up the RIGHT way. These crusty dusty people who’ve been in for decades doing the same sh!t over and over again are wasting taxpayers’ dollars; don’t be afraid to make it right.”

I wanted to stand up and cheer when my daughter shared this email. It was exactly what I’ve been trying to convey in my presentations about disruption. It aligns with my research on optimism because it validates that we have to make our tomorrow better. When I put it on a slide in my last keynote, people cheered. They took a photo of this quote with their phones. 

That feels empowering. When I hear that, I’m inspired to act and be a disrupter, but here’s the rub: I don’t know what to do next. We could gather a book of matches, some gasoline, and a torch, but that’s a felony, and we are all too pretty for jail. 

People approached me after my keynote and asked: How do I disrupt enough to change things without burning the place down? 

I looked these conference attendees square in the eyes and confidently answered: I don’t know.

Let’s dissect this by starting with what not to do and see if we can identify some action items that can effect change without open flames. 

Keeping your head down and saying nothing when you know you should speak up doesn’t challenge people and processes. I know this type because I used to be this person. Early in my career, I was given the advice to shut my mouth and not upset the apple cart. And I listened. I adopted the mantra of “pick your battles” and “choose which hill you want to die on.” I ignored ignorant and sexist statements, and I ignored the idiots who were making questionable decisions. I nodded, agreeing with things I didn’t agree on just to fit in. I watched and personally experienced bosses who bullied, and I kept my head down like a coward. I am unbelievably embarrassed to tell you that I got promoted to sergeant using this method, so I cannot in good conscience say it doesn’t work. Because when you’re a “go along to get along” employee and don’t cause any waves, they like you. Why wouldn’t they? I gained personal achievement but lacked the courage to speak up and protest. I adopted the status quo because I thought it would help me climb the ladder – and I was right. 

I chose to be the silent observer because I noted that the kind of people who yell loudly are ineffective. They are labeled whiners and troublemakers. After my keynote, a woman shared with me that she was that person, and it was futile. Her peers ostracized her because of her delivery and demeanor – not necessarily her message. She considered herself an outspoken disruptor, and based on what she shared, she wasn’t wrong about her convictions, but no one was listening. 

This quote from Edwin Friedman explains why:

“People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.”

Using words to overpower causes people to tune you out. 

After getting promoted, I knew I couldn’t continue down the same path, so I decided to use my leadership position to change the culture. I started pushing back and giving my opinion. I found my voice, and believe me when I tell you, it trembled initially. But over time, I learned to finesse how I offered redirection and even got comfortable asking, “Would you like to hear a dissenting viewpoint?” Surprisingly, the autocratic leadership always said yes, and I tried to deliver opposition in a way that wasn’t aggressive or snarky.

I evolved into a confident person and leader because I knew I had the competency to back up my beliefs. An audience member in Langley, British Columbia, came up to me after my keynote and told me that she has found the best way to create a culture of fearless disruption is to stop yelling and set an example for others to follow. She doesn’t stifle her voice, but she isn’t aggressive. She found that displaying courage gives others permission to do the same. When many voices are added to the choir, it becomes harder to ignore than if it were a solo performance. 

So here are some ways you can disrupt the status quo:

1) Listen and learn. It seems counterintuitive, but when you seek to understand the viewpoint of those resisting change or contributing to the negative culture, you can understand the “thing behind the thing.” If you ask questions to genuinely learn why people make decisions and act as they do, it clarifies and even humanizes them. It took me a long time, but I finally realized that the greatest tormentor in my career was a broken, insecure man who puffed his chest out and bullied others because he felt so incredibly inferior. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but when you peel the layers away, the worst human beings are deeply wounded. After realizing this, I felt bad for him, and that helped me navigate around him. Not everyone is as nefarious in their outward sabotage. Sometimes, people are ignorant and can’t see anything besides their viewpoint. They are still damaging to the organization, but they can be challenged. 

2) Challenge out of site. I love the idea of calling someone out who has behaved badly in front of everyone or protesting an antiquated or inequitable system by screaming from the rooftops, but it just makes the entity you’re challenging more defensive. You might push back and say, “Who cares?” However, you should care if you want to change behaviors or outcomes. I have pulled people aside and shared how I perceived a comment or action. Start by saying, “I’m not sure if you meant to upset or offend me, but that’s how I felt.” In almost every instance, the person acknowledged the transgression and didn’t realize it was harmful. It’s incredible how many people don’t know what they don’t know. 

3) Offer solutions. It’s not enough to make noise about a person or a system; if you don’t offer a valuable way forward, you’re just complaining. If you are confronting a problem that needs to be solved, think through a viable solution or at least a first step towards a better outcome. 

4) Ask for help. If you don’t have a solution, state the problem and ask for feedback from others. Are others experiencing the same issue? Is this widespread or individual? Sometimes, when something happens to us, we internalize it and take on the burden without knowing that others carry the same load. Talk and share your experience with others and ask for guidance. Consider yourself a micro-disruptor (maybe that’s the disrupter without matches) and challenge the status quo. And then surround yourself with others who want to do the same. The more disruptive your innovation, the more you need to start a movement for change by building a tribe.

5) Become so good they can’t ignore you. Let your work ethic and results speak for themselves so no one can dismiss you or your ideas based on your infallibility. We had some outspoken individuals in my organization who had some excellent ideas. Unfortunately, they were discounted because they were subpar employees who were sick-time abusers or policy violators. I’m not suggesting that’s fair, but it’s reality. I know of one woman who always thought she got a raw deal in the department and blamed everyone for her plight, and yet she called in sick 1/3 of her career. Disrupting a broken system is difficult when you lack credibility or respect.

Challenge the outdated, propose the innovative, and be the change you wish to see in your environment. The path of a disruptor is not easy or straightforward, but it is undoubtedly rewarding. The essence of disruption lies in the hope of what we can achieve—a hope grounded in the belief that tomorrow can be better than today and that we have the power to make it so.

Disrupting the status quo isn’t about recklessness or tearing down for the sake of destruction; it’s about intentional action toward transformation. True disruption is a blend of courage, strategy, and empathy. It requires us to be listeners and leaders, understanding the systems and people we aim to change and being bold enough to introduce new ideas.

Disruption turns into transformation, and transformation begins with us. Let’s start that movement.

Onward and upward.

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